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Accessing Interpreter and Translation Services

by Karen McIlroy
EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

   There are many challenges for first responders when they are providing medical treatment to victims, even when they speak the same language. For example:

   •   is the victim describing referred pain or is it where the injury actually is on the body?
   •   is the victim in a state where they can answer critical questions?
   •   does the victim understand the questions being asked and/or have enough knowledge about his/her medical conditions to provide needed information for emergency treatment?

   When one thinks about how same-language circumstances affect emergency situation outcomes, it’s even more difficult to imagine how first responders can accurately assess the needs of injured people when they and the victim cannot verbally communicate due to their inability to speak each other’s language.

   Many rural first responder agencies rely on local community resources to access emergency interpreter and translation services, often available at no charge: neighborhood human service agencies, hospitals, churches, a local speaker of a language who has offered to be on call for crisis situations, etc. They have identified and created support systems that are specific to the language needs and are culturally relevant to their service area’s populations.

   When such support is not available or has not been identified, a range of national and state agencies and companies can connect with almost every language in the world. There are fees for the diverse services provided, and the information on each website includes all of the products that are also available. Many of the companies are included in the link below:

   There is also new technology that is available to provide easy access to interpreters for emergency situations. Two examples are:

   RTT Mobile has launched ELSA, Enabling Language Service Anywhere, which is a handheld device that connects users with live interpreters. Designed to be compact and simple, it has 3 buttons, a speaker, and built-in microphones. It uses a cell phone signal and can provide access to an interpreter through Language Line Solutions, a translation agency based in Monterey, California. Within 30 seconds to one minute, first responders are connected to interpreters who speak 180 different languages.

   Minnesota, one state that is using the technology statewide, has found that although it has been very effective for immediate connection to translators, charges can mount up. The ELSA device costs $400.00 and up to $2.00 a minute to operate.

   AT&T has launched its ODI, On Demand Interpreter, which can be accessed on mobile devices connected to their users with service agreements. Registered users can press *4 on their device to access interpreters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, who speak more than 170 different languages.

   Translators for ODI are provided by Language Line Service, an interpreting and translation service. Again, cost can be a factor. Pricing for this AT&T service starts at $2.99 per month and $1.09 per minute per connected call. Discounts are available based on user plans and agreements.

   While the U.S. model offers a range of commercial services, Australia showcases an alternative, a national translating and interpreting service called TIS National. It provides services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and includes a panel of over 2400 interpreters who speak more than 160 languages and dialects. There is a fee-for service structure, but there is a process for individuals and organizations to apply for to receive these services at no charge.

   As technology continues to provide the public with affordable devices with multiple capabilities, and gaps in services are being identified, especially in rural areas of our country, businesses are stepping up to the plate to form partnerships that benefit everyone. Hopefully, as these trends continue, affordability will become less of an issue.

If your agency is using another resource for interpreter or translation services, and you would like to share it in At the Ready, please send the information and link to

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